Murray Dobbin
The tragedy and farce of Karzai's Afghanistan

| November 5, 2009

It was extremely unlikely that the runoff election next weekend would have saved U.S. and Canada from the continuing catastrophe in Afghanistan but at least there was a chance.  There could have been a sheen of legitimacy -- provided the second farce was a little less farcical than the first.

But it wasn't to be and now the whole picture is sure to become more grotesque than ever.  With Abdullah Abdullah pulling out, the US will have the worst of both worlds in President Karzai -- a man they detest and don't trust and who can claim virtually no legitimacy, but who they cannot get rid of.  Declaring him President is actually illegal because there is nothing in the Afghan constitution that allows for it. But fearful of more violence and a voter turn-out that might go as low as single digits the West had no choice.

Abdullah pulled out for both mischievous and legitimate reasons. He knew he would lose and this way he cripples the credibility of his rival and preserves his own stature and perhaps even enhances it.  But what has not received much coverage -- or not enough -- is his demand that that the Afghan Independent Election Commission be purged of its worst Karzai sycophants, the ones who ensured that voting places be opened (and used for ballot stuffing) where everyone knew no one would vote.

The whole Commission was appointed by the government and were it not for the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission the phony election would have gone unchallenged.

Were it not so tragic -- were we not looking at several more years of carnage and misery -- the whole situation would be comic. The most powerful Empire in the history of the world has, from the start, been as dumb as a bag of hammers. An empire at its peak would hire the best talent to design its adventures; one in the late stages of decline thinks it can get by with ideology and bombs. The Taliban, whatever else they are thinking, must be shaking their heads at the breathtaking incompetence of their adversary.

This what Canada has signed on to.

For the next five years the U.S. has to accept Karzai because, of course, he is no longer just an appointee of the Empire, he is the elected president.

Well, sort of elected.  The Canadian government has to accept as legitimate someone who literally nobody else believes has any moral authority. It doesn't get much worse than that.  Stephen Harper and Obama "warned" Karzai that he would have to deal with corruption. And if he doesn't? Short of assassinating him or allowing him to be killed (I am sure it is an option on the intelligence table) there is nothing they can do. Any of the ways of punishing Karzai for non-performance would just make the situation worse.

And you can hardly blame Karzai. He was given an impossible job: create a democracy out of total chaos, ancient tribal hatreds and a total lack of civil society institutions and tradition without which pluralist democracy is next to impossible. To maintain even the semblance of governance, Karzai had to enlist the only people who could actually claim to control the country -- the murderous war criminals of the Northern Alliance and other warlords around the country. The "mayor of Kabul" facing a nation with no loyalty to a central government has few tools at his disposal -- bribery, forbearance of the drug trade, and acquiescence to hard line Islam. Most people educated enough to even understand the role of government let alone play a role in it, left the country after the Taliban took power.

There is only one way out now and according to some analysts Obama is already designing the exit strategy by initiating talks with so-called "nationalist" Taliban as opposed to the more fundamentalist version.  These negotiations could focus on what Obama has said repeatedly: that his principal goal is to ensure that al Qaeda does not return to Afghanistan and once again set up its "training camps" to plan attacks on the U.S. That would mean a deal with the Taliban allowing them a major role in the governance of the country and acceptance of the continuing dominance of the warlords in the North, in return for the Taliban breaking ties with al-Qaeda and their foreign fighters.

That might actually appeal to most Afghans who are intensely nationalist and suspicious of foreigners, even Muslim ones. But handing power over to the Taliban is not much easier than fighting them. The U.S. will want something for the lives and treasure lost -- at the very least a contract for a U.S. gas pipeline through the south of the country. And there is the sticky problem of Mr. Karzai -- the "legitimate" president, symbol of American democracy. Just how the U.S. will now justify negotiating with the enemy, if it means Karzai losing authority, is unclear. 

As if we needed another symbol of just how impossible this war has become, five British soldiers were killed this week, by one of the policemen they were training. This training is the key element to the only exit strategy the West has. As for the Canadian government it is acutely aware of the incredible mess it is in. But Harper will not lose face and his dedication to the Empire runs deep. And so far the whole political elite, Liberals and Conservatives, are taking the line that in order to do development you have to have security. In other words keep doing what we have been doing and hope for totally different results.

According to Steve Staples of the Rideau Institute that will mean the death of approximately 60 more Canadian soldiers and the expenditure of  another $4 billion up to December 20011 when the current mission is supposed to end.


Murray Dobbin is's Senior Contributing Editor. His State of the Nation column appears every two weeks in TheTyee and Read his blog at


Canadians are unfazed by governments that lack legitimacy or moral authority. After all, we practically invented them.

Stephen Harper got even less support in the last two elections than did Karzai, so I don't know why the government would feel any embarrassment about sending Canadian troops to kill and die to keep Karzai in power.

There was an interesting article in Tomdispatch by Nick Turse about how the war in Afghanistan is being carried out almost entirely by private contractors, and in a big way.  The thin veneer of justification by means of a "democratically-elected" government was never more than that. Karzai was "discovered" and appointed by the Bush Administration.  Most interesting is the way in which the Americans (and NATO "allies") are repeating almost exactly the same mistakes, and often with the same facilities and even equipment abandoned by the Soviet invasion and attempted occupation 20-30 years ago.

Tom Dispatch

posted 2009-11-05 11:08:25

Tomgram: Nick Turse, In Afghanistan, the Pentagon Digs in

In our day, the American way of war, especially against lightly armed guerrillas, insurgents, and terrorists, has proved remarkably heavy. Elephantine might be the appropriate word. The Pentagon likes to talk about its "footprint" on the geopolitical landscape. In terms of the infrastructure it's built in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps "crater" would be a more reasonable image.

American wars are now gargantuan undertakings. The prospective withdrawal of significant numbers/most/all American forces from Iraq, for instance, will -- in terms of time and effort -- make the 2003 invasion look like the vaunted "cakewalk" it was supposed to be. According to Pentagon estimates, more than 1.5 million (yes, that is "million") pieces of U.S. equipment need to be removed from the country. Just stop and take that in for a second.

Of course, it's a less surprising figure when you realize that the Pentagon managed to build, furnish, and supply almost 300 bases, macro to micro, in Iraq alone in the war years. And some of those bases were -- and still are -- the size of small American towns with tens of thousands of troops, private contractors, and others, as well as massive perimeters, multiple bus routes, full-scale PX's, fast-food outlets, movie theaters, and the like.

In many ways, Iraq-style war has now become the gargantuan template for the Afghan War build-up that Nick Turse describes below. (His is the sort of summary picture of a less-than-adequately-covered situation that TomDispatch specializes in, based in part on investigative Internet reporting and the mining of Pentagon contracts, government and corporate websites, and military publications.) In fact, some percentage of those 1.5 million pieces of equipment will undoubtedly simply be sent Afghanistan-wards. As the Bush administration built the world's largest -- and shoddiest -- embassy in Baghdad, our own mother ship, mission control center for the region, and modern ziggurat, so now, the Obama administration is about to do the same (at approximately the same startling cost) in Islamabad, Pakistan, as a monstrous mission control center for the Af/Pak theater of operations.

In Iraq, structures like Balad Air Base or the ill-named Camp Victory just on the edge of Baghdad are so massive, so permanent-looking -- so clearly built for long-term occupation -- that it's still hard to imagine how the Pentagon will abandon them to the Iraqis.

Now, as Turse reports, the U.S. military seems intent on beefing up another network of bases for another surging war, involving another heavy presence in another distant land -- and these bases, too, the Pentagon will undoubtedly be loath to turn over or evacuate. Every army carries a version of its society on its back into battle. We emphasize poundage. Like our culture, our wars are spendthrift and consumption-oriented. If continued, they will someday bust us. Tom


2014 or Bust The Pentagon's Building Boom in Afghanistan Indicates a Long War Ahead
By Nick Turse

In recent weeks, President Obama has been contemplating the future of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. He has also been touting the effects of his policies at home, reporting that this year's Recovery Act not only saved jobs, but also was "the largest investment in infrastructure since [President Dwight] Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s." At the same time, another much less publicized U.S.-taxpayer-funded infrastructure boom has been underway. This one in Afghanistan.

While Washington has put modest funding into civilian projects in Afghanistan this year -- ranging from small-scale power plants to "public latrines" to a meat market -- the real construction boom is military in nature. The Pentagon has been funneling stimulus-sized sums of money to defense contractors to markedly boost its military infrastructure in that country.

In fiscal year 2009, for example, the civilian U.S. Agency for International Development awarded $20 million in contracts for work in Afghanistan, while the U.S. Army alone awarded $2.2 billion -- $834 million of it for construction projects. In fact, according to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, the Pentagon has spent "roughly $2.7 billion on construction over the past three fiscal years" in that country and, "if its request is approved as part of the fiscal 2010 defense appropriations bill, it would spend another $1.3 billion on more than 100 projects at 40 sites across the country, according to a Senate report on the legislation."

Bogged Down at Bagram

Nowhere has the building boom been more apparent than Bagram Air Base, a key military site used by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In its American incarnation, the base has significantly expanded from its old Soviet days and, in just the last two years, the population of the more than 5,000 acre compound has doubled to 20,000 troops, in addition to thousands of coalition forces and civilian contractors. To keep up with its exponential growth rate, more than $200 million in construction projects are planned or in-progress at this moment on just the Air Force section of the base. "Seven days a week, concrete trucks rumble along the dusty perimeter road of this air base as bulldozers and backhoes reshape the rocky earth," Chuck Crumbo of The State reported recently. "Hundreds of laborers slap mortar onto bricks as they build barracks and offices. Four concrete plants on the base have operated around the clock for 18 months to keep up with the construction needs."

The base already boasts fast food favorites Burger King, a combination Pizza Hut/Bojangles, and Popeyes as well as a day spa and shops selling jewelry, cell phones and, of course, Afghan rugs. In the near future, notes Pincus, "the military is planning to build a $30 million passenger terminal and adjacent cargo facility to handle the flow of troops, many of whom arrive at the base north of Kabul before moving on to other sites." In addition, according to the Associated Press, the base command is "acquiring more land next year on the east side to expand" even further.

To handle the influx of troops already being dispatched by the Obama administration (with more expected once the president decides on his long-term war plans) "new dormitories" are going up at Bagram, according to David Axe of the Washington Times. The base's population will also increase in the near future, thanks to a project-in-progress recently profiled in The Freedom Builder, an Army Corps of Engineers publication: the MILCON Bagram Theatre Internment Facility (TIF) currently being built at a cost of $60 million by a team of more than 1,000 Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, and Afghans. When completed, it will consist of 19 buildings and 16 guard towers designed to hold more than 1,000 detainees on the sprawling base which has long been notorious for the torture and even murder of prisoners within its confines....

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